Costs and Benefits

What’s the harm? It’s a question that skeptics (especially me) seem to like answering. This year, we were all made painfully aware of the harm of influenza (and related pseudo-quackery) due to the widespread circulation of a new strain, which caused the deaths of many Canadians, especially in the younger population. Whenever people get sick and/or die from preventable diseases, society incurs huge costs, both emotionally and financially, due to deaths and hospitalizations. These might be the most significant losses to disease, but they aren’t the only losses.

A much less thought about, yet still significant societal loss due to the influenza virus is that of lost productivity due to people calling in sick to work. According to an article published by the Financial Post on January 15th, this November saw a net loss of 20.9 million work hours due to both the H1N1 and seasonal flu across Canada. That’s approximately $200,000,000 in lost productivity, if we assume–and grossly underestimate–the average wage to be that of $9.50/hour — the minimum wage in Ontario. And that’s only for one month.

The study, commissioned by the Public Health Agency of Canada, found that 1.5 million employees ages 15 to 69 called in sick from work due to either the H1N1 or seasonal flu last November, for a total of 29.5 million lost work hours.

At the same time, 600,000 people had to work extra hard to make up for it, putting in 8.6 million extra hours of work for a net loss of 20.9 million work hours.

Money makes the world go round.

Whereas I’m certainly not implying that this loss of productivity is on par with the massive loss of life caused by influenza each year, it is still a sizable blow being dealt to our economy by a preventable disease. Why should skeptics care? Because this is an under-utilized argument that helps strengthen the case for vaccination when factored into the cost-benefit analysis of running a vaccination program.

Cost-benefit analyses are a popular tool in decision making and practical ethics. Though far from perfect, they do provide considerable insight into things like business and public policy decisions. The problems with cost-benefit analyses tend to arise when significant costs are emitted from the calculation, either intentionally or unintentionally. An informed decision is contingent on recognizing a rather broad scope of benefits and harms from any action undertaken. By extension, a more extensive list of the harms and benefits of vaccinations are important in order to fully understand why programs like these are so beneficial.

Disclaimer: I fully realize that there are some serious conceptual problems with cost-benefit analyses. That being said, I also strongly believe that when not interpreted too literally, they can provide insight into our decision making procedure, regardless of whether or not they are capable of informing the decision directly.

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  • Mitchell Gerskup

    Mitchell Gerskup recently graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in Economics and Philosophy. An avid atheist and skeptic, he has served as the President of the University of Toronto Secular Alliance, helping to promote science, reason and critical thinking around Toronto. He also volunteers with the Centre for Inquiry’s Ontario branch, and currently sits on the CFI’s Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism. Mitchell is also an accomplished competitive debater, having debated all across Canada. In addition to issues of economics and philosophy, Mitchell is interested in the fields of science and technology.